Recently, I attended the World Affairs Council annual conference held at the St. Regis in San Francisco. The notable keynote speakers for the event were CNN host Fareed Zakaria and Robert Reich, chancellor professor at University of California, Berkeley. Both Zakaria and Reich were tossed into a sold out, over the age of 50 crowd to address the big questions--what are the greatest security challenges to American power, and what are the challenges to American economic power?
Zakaria provided some critical insight, touching on the complex set of security dilemmas, noting that today's security challenges are interconnected and no country can tackle the problem alone. Countries are faced with a new modern battlefield where guns and military might are secondary, and intelligence and high-speed communication in cyberspace are primary weapons. It matters less than ever that the US has the largest military in the world, as the redistribution of power and influence appears to be changing daily, be it through natural disasters or dissent against a tyrannical government. Zakaria pontificated that the US needs to
find ways to compete better in the global economic landscape. If the US doesn't get a handle on its unprecedented debt, which seems to be increasing at an unsustainable rate, according to Zakaria, 5 to 7 years from now, the shift of power will be obvious. Interestingly enough, he makes a good point in saying that "a country cannot be the largest debtor in the world and be a superpower."
Reich further elaborated the waning challenges of American power. He suggested that the global effects of the latest tsunami would be felt in weeks to come as supply chains are choked. Corporations will not be able to fulfill the demands of consumption without essential shipment of parts from Japan. He further added that most things may look like they are made in China but many parts come from Japan and are often only assembled in China. The only quandary that lingered after Reich's talk was why would the breakdown of the supply chain be a good thing--as Reich suggests that it might be--and good for whom? In the US we don't really manufacture anything anymore; we've sent that job to our richer, more "undeveloped" nations that don't mind making things for us. If not us, then who? Or perhaps he hopes that out
of this immense tragedy we Westerners will throw away our egos and get back to working with our hands, get back to the good old days of the Industrial Age.
The conference was a great place to dialogue about the American position, the albatross of success, the American guardianship of international stability, and where all of these problems leave us now. Granted, most of the world's problems will not be solved within a few days, but it was great to have thinkers converge and ponder solutions. With all of the global challenges in the 21st century it's more important than ever to make sure we harness innovative solutions and conversations--even if it's at a conference in the middle of San Francisco on a rainy Friday.